The House of Morgan, Remodeled

Jamie Dimon has restored John Pierpont's company, but he's not Morgan reincarnate
Morgan: Unlike Dimon, he used a cane to keep people at bay Conde Nast Archive/Corbis

Where are Wall Street's saviors when we most need them? The place hasn't been so faceless and voiceless since Dutch locals were trading codfish futures. Quick: Can anyone out there name the head of the New York Stock Exchange (NYX)?

The one player that actually parlayed the credit crisis into resurgence is JPMorgan Chase (JPM), led by CEO Jamie Dimon. Having the discipline to lay off the toxic stuff and keep a lid on costs, Morgan now finds itself worth more than Citigroup and Merrill Lynch combined. Four times as much as Wachovia (WB). Twelve times Lehman Brothers (LEH). Morgan is the odds-on favorite to take out Washington Mutual (WM) if the troubled thrift finally throws in the towel. Across the pond, it is leading the effort to break up Britain's top mortgage lender, HBOS. In an unprecedented act of public-private triage, the feds sought out Dimon in March to rescue Bear Stearns (BSC), and the broader financial system, from their near-death experience. Surely, the 52-year-old's canonization can't be too far off, especially in light of Dimon's bully pulpit and sudden, often eerie connection with John Pierpont Morgan, his legendary predecessor. A Second Coming? The House of Morgan rides again? While the idea is tempting—and comforting to many—it's way too soon to engrave that trophy; Dimon may not want it, anyway.

A few weeks back this reporter was invited by CNBC (GE) to comment on Dimon's remarks to a Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. conference. It wasn't exactly must-see-TV. But amid worries over bank runs, and with Aunt Fannie (FNM) and Uncle Freddie (FRE) headed to the ICU, people were desperate for news—any news—from the financial trenches. The longing was palpable. So CNBC surreally followed Dimon's every move: highlighting his face as he sat in the audience and tracking him as he walked up to the dais. You'd think J.D. Salinger or the Loch Ness Monster were about to take the mic. All this came just hours after a rare appearance on Charlie Rose about which I received no fewer than three press releases.

The private Dimon, who was enjoying a quiet birthday dinner with his family back when Bear and the feds rang him up, didn't exactly ask for all this. With 15 separate operating titles over his career, Dimon made his name not through self-aggrandizement but by executing, micromanaging, and knowing every number. An avowed cheapskate, he has hacked away at bloat not just at Morgan but also at Bank One, Salomon Smith Barney, and Primerica. In public, he sounds more like a shopkeeper in Queens than a Wall Street orator. "I don't think this is a role he sought," says Ron Chernow, author of The House of Morgan. "He happened to be the head of an institution strong enough to take over a large bank that was going bust, and on short notice."

Still, he has hardly been a shrinking violet. On Charlie Rose, Dimon waxed righteously indignant about the bete noire du jour: short-sellers and their confederates. "I think that if someone knowingly starts a rumor or passes on a rumor, they should go to jail.... This is even worse than insider trading. This is deliberate and malicious destruction of value and people's lives." (Of course, JPMorgan Chase stands to be the top beneficiary of the rumor-mongering that supposedly helped take down Bear.)

Dimon also has called out fellow banks on the rigor of their capital-quality standards, perhaps channeling an inner Ben Bernanke. All of which brings to mind the extraordinary role played by his firm's founder, John Pierpoint Morgan.

(Of course, JPMorgan Chase stands to be the top beneficiary of the rumor-mongering that supposedly helped take down Bear.)

Dimon also has called out fellow banks on the rigor of their capital-quality standards, perhaps channeling an inner Ben Bernanke. All of which brings to mind the extraordinary role played by his firm's founder, John Pierpoint Morgan.

Back in the newsroom, I noticed copies of Robert Bruner and Sean Carr's The Panic of 1907 making the rounds. Centennially timed, the book came out last summer just as the credit pinch transmogrified into a credit crisis. In chapter four, "Credit Anorexia," the authors describe the globally interconnected, overleveraged, almost irresolvable financial mess that J. Pierpont Morgan raced to undo. Just as Dimon summoned scores of troops to study Bear's books over a frenzied weekend, Morgan corralled industrialists and bankers to a marathon Saturday-Sunday effort to rescue capitalism from failing brokers and trusts. A chance recurrence? Or the hand of destiny?

But for all the appeal of a straight-up analogy, Dimon simply can't be the second coming of J. Pierpont. That larger-than-life figure practically was the U.S. economy: the default central banker before we even had a Federal Reserve; oligarch-in-chief when a handful of trusts and monopolists literally ran the country—and back when $1 billion was an incomprehensibly large sum (today, we're talking in the trillions, both in terms of bank losses and derivative values, across thousands of affected institutions). However this credit crisis plays out, the economy will not regress to that primordial configuration. And that's the thing: This credit crisis hasn't fully played out yet, so the verdict on Dimon is still up in the air. Will the Bear Stearns deal turn into a dud? Will Morgan's relatively strong loan book suddenly look subprime if its retail customers start capitulating? Moreover, what if the entire financial system still finds a way to come unglued?

Still, feel free to compare and contrast to your heart's content. Like the late robber baron, Dimon is press-shy. Unlike Mr. Morgan, however, he won't swing at you with his cane if you get too close. Morgan liked to take Lobster Newburg at Victorian chophouse Delmonico's; Dimon is more turkey sandwich and Poland Spring. In old age, Morgan suffered a skin condition that inflamed his nose enough to scare little children; he relied on imported creams and photographic airbrushing. I doubt that Dimon even splashes on Aqua Velva.

Not that any of this will stop today's JPMorgan Chase from availing itself of nostalgic marketing. For starters, the bank has been using the minimalist "J.P. Morgan" moniker far more frequently.

Imagine the possibilities: James L. Dimon dons a top hat, cane, and belly fob. Wags take to calling Wall Street the Dimon District.

In time, sterile Chase bank ATMs will be reworked in rich maplewood and polished brass, their receipts printed in calligraphy on parchment. You can request your withdrawal in buffalo nickels or even double-eagle gold coins. Overhead, elaborate, hand-chiseled gargoyles will house security cameras and ward off overdraft demons.

But what will they be saying about the great J.L. Dimon in 2108?

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